Featured Article: 12 Trends from the Front End of Innovation
Being an innovation consultant requires that I remain aware of innovation trends. To that end, I attended the recent Front End of Innovation (FEI) conference. The conference is targeted and marketed to corporate attendees and organized by IIR, a company whose focus is on the organization of business conferences. It was clear right away that they were professionals: smooth organization, great food, and a cool way to network using mingle sticks (http://www.minglestick.com). Yet what initially struck me was a lack of energy from the audience. The host kept trying jokes that got tepid responses, and the level of applause was less than enthusiastic. Why is this relevant? Because one of the biggest themes developed at the conference was the importance of culture in organizations that seek to promote and develop innovations. John Kotter, the marketing guru from the Harvard Business School, introduced his latest thinking about successful innovative organizations requiring an informal structure of passionate people wanting to work on innovation projects, in contrast to the formal organization required to manage core business. So it begs the question: does the culture at a front end of innovation conference reflect the values required by innovative people in innovative organization? How do we bring the passion of innovation to the culture of the conference?
Another surprise was the mostly mediocre quality of the PowerPoint presentations. Except for a few designers, advertisers and technology presenters, the slides were packed with text that the speaker read directly from, with pictures that did not bring anything new to their stories. Visual thinking has not yet reached many in the corporate world! As an intriguing contrast, Kotter’s presentation was done with an overhead projector. I have to say that at first I was surprised, as I have not seen one of those for years. However, it brought a human touch and an interaction with the audience that was refreshing and much more relevant than many of the other presentations. In the rush for innovation, let’s not forget what worked in the past and why. In the rush for better tools, we need to remember that, old or new, tools serve a purpose here, interacting with the audience and getting buy-in.
Here are my 12 key learnings from the conference. Now you may wonder why 12 and not the usual 10 best list, so I would like to ask: why not 12? Innovation is about questioning and breaking assumptions and patterns, so here are the 12 consistent themes I saw across speakers and presentations:
1- Fail often and early
This was the theme of my February newsletter and I felt good about being a trendsetter when the following month (March 2011) Harvard Business Review had a special issue on failure. At the conference, this idea kept popping everywhere from the T-shirt that were given by vendors, to speakers and panelists. John Tuders from Bank of America explained that in their risk constraint industry, prototyping and testing has actually "helped risk partners understand that we are mitigating risk". John Lehrer point out that there is actually brain science demonstrating that the only way to get things right is to make mistakes, as it strengthens your predictions neurons. "… every time you make a mistake or encounter something new your brain cells are busy changing themselves" (Lehrer, 2011)
2- Focus and alignment
Focus was a major theme at the conference and covered from different aspects. One angle was the importance of focusing innovation efforts in a certain direction, where the team/management is aligned (Kotter). In a world with many innovation projects and scarce resources, the organization must make choices and prioritize. Terri Kelly, the CEO of Gore, explained how the company uses a bull’s eye tool to select opportunities based on financial, product offering and market attractiveness. Steven Goers from Kraft explained that in an organization that requires 2.5 billion (!) in growth every year, focus is critical, as small projects may require almost as much resources as bigger ones.
3- Buy-in from the top: make it relevant, solve their problems
There were many discussions about the challenges, yet the absolute necessity to get top management buy-in in order to succeed. In a Q&A session, Kotter answered that he cannot think of examples when innovation succeeded in a company without alignment, or else an organization "can only do little things in a little group". To get buy-in from management, Kotter, Jon Bidwell from CHUBB and Raja Rajamannar from Humana suggested identifying in conjunction with management, some problems they have not been able to solve, or some top opportunities so innovation will feel relevant to them. Colin Watts, the CIO of Walgreens, suggested to frame it for management as a VC funding opportunities since the concept of VC create enthusiasm, while innovation may create fear, and present the opportunities as a "mini VC pitch."
4- Telling stories
Story telling is finally welcomed in business. We heard many stories all through the presentations from how Wag Dodge creative thinking saved his life in a major forest fire (Lehrer), to how the French Post Office increased its performance by allowing employees to self-organize and manage both their work hours and the office public hours (Gouillart). These stories helped me remember some of the salient points of each speaker more effectively than the zillions of PowerPoint slides! Story telling has also become a key internal communication tool. For example, Goers of Kraft mentioned that "story telling and case studies" help showcase the value of innovation to management and within the organization.
5- Understanding your customers
Speakers concurred that a deep understanding of their users or customers is critical. Even in the Business to Business world, Dan Edgar from DuPont explained that after realizing that their organization needed more insights in 2007, they began training their staff to do qualitative discovery interviews with their customers to identify needs. Sarah Ross from Miller Coors explained how they worked with the research company Egg Strategy to gain understanding of young adult beer consumption, using cell phones. 40 guys took pictures with their phone and answered questions on the go over 20 nights each, which helped Miller Lite better understand real behaviors. For instance, the reason a guy may change during the night from drinking Miller Lite to a more "mature beer" like Heineken, would be because their boss or a girlfriend shows up.
6- Co-creation and optimizing the experiences for all stakeholders
Francis Gouillart from EEC Partnership highlighted that co-creation allows to generate value by creating new experiences for all the stakeholders. He used Nike+i-pod system to explain the gains for the company (gained 10% market share the year they launched), and for the individual (better understanding of his/her performance and opportunities to connect with the runner community).
7- Holistic thinking and working together
Vince Voron from Coca-Cola Coke illustrated the value of getting out of working in silos and having more integrated teams. He described how the principle of "inclusivity" moving from "the board room to the design studio" together with the finance group, helped his team to redesign the whole Coke experience so customers would have similar branding everywhere (stores, vending machines, restaurants) while being financially sound. Melody Roberts explained that McDonalds was able to create better outcomes by working in an integrated team and measuring the results of an improved offer and restaurant setting holistically, rather than each function independently.
8- Rapid prototyping/testing to mitigate risks and generate short term wins
Roberts (McDonalds) described how prototyping in a holistic way that integrates employees and customers experience helped to create a common language, get away from trade-offs to build win-win solutions and better manage the complexity of growing menu choices. She explained how building a new prototype restaurant with foam structures but real equipment and food to test some changes was "a disaster," and yet represented a critical step to ultimate success. Terry Kelley, the CEO of Gore described "low barriers to experimentation" and "bias to action" as critical practices. Kotter shared a most fascinating prototyping story, where employees in a train factory independently designed an improved production system and sold it to management using a three-level wood box, which had a mock-up of the current production system, as well as two-level of improved systems. Kaaren Hanson from Intuit explained that with their new Design for Delight approach, teams are now experimenting five to six times per day (you can read more details about this experience in Roger Martin June Harvard Business Review article).
9- Empowering others through open innovation
Another key area for discussion was open-innovation, which can be done with different approaches as demonstrated during a panel discussion. For Clorox, it is a way to work both with suppliers and internally. For Motorola, open innovation is a way to break down internal silos, while at Intuit it is a new way to include clients and employees. Key nuggets also varies from "get started, don’t wait to make it perfect" as long as you keep the business goal in mind (Clorox), to "get your house in order" before opening to the outside (Motorola) to provide tools to the community at large (Intuit).
Terry Kelley the CEO of Gore in a presentation on nurturing a culture of innovation, emphasized how finding passionate champions are critical to success and that at the end of the day "environment and people are more important than process and tools."
11- Comfort with ambiguity and ability to embrace change
Being comfortable with ambiguity is a trait of creative people (Puccio, Mance & Murdock, 2011) and was highlighted as critical for those working in an innovation capacity by many speakers. Sheri Mc Coy from Johnson and Johnson describe that trait as critical for those working to define new white spaces. In a world with an accelerating pace of change and with 79% of CEO expecting more complexity in the next five years (IBM survey 2010), only the organizations that embrace change will survive, said Carlos Dominguez from Cisco.
12- Avatars are here: Technology to create fundamental changes
Dominguez from Cisco emphasized how new video conference technology (hologram, 3D) has and will continue to fundamentally impact the way we interact throughout the world, since we can be there with all the body language cues while not being physically in the same area.
Jeremy Baillenson, a fascinating researcher from Stanford explained to an audience aged 30-50’s, that kids spend an average of eight hours per day using digital media outside the classroom, and two hours as an avatar. He challenged us to consider the impact on behaviors when one can be in a world where he or she can be whoever they want through their avatar. What happens when an avatar teacher maintains eye contact with each student, all day long via his or her computer? What happens when you can see the results of your diet before you even start? To learn more about the fascinating world of avatars you may want to check his new book Infinite Reality.
I would like to conclude by a quote from Mc Coy from Johnson and Johnson "pilot, fail early, make decisions and move," or to quote another famous brand, "Just do it!" What will you start doing more of in your organization to stay in the front end?
Helene Cahen, MS
Innovation Consultant, Facilitator and Trainer
IBM CEO Survey
Blacskovich, J. & Baillenson J. (2011). Infinite reality. Avatars, eternal life, new worlds and the dawn of the virtual revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers,
Lethrer, J. 2009. How we decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Martin, R.L. (2011). The innovation catalyst. The best creative thinking happens on a company’s front lines. You just need to encourage it. Harvard Business Review. June 2011, p.82-87.
Puccio, G.J., Mance, M. & Murdock, M.C. (2011). Creative leadership: Skills that drive change. Thousand Oak, CA: Sage Publications
New Article to Check
Asking the important questions: a guide to design thinking and a better way to serve customers. This recent article in Innovation Management is based on a discussion by journalist Melba Kurman with Professor Beckman from the Haas School of Business. I worked with Sara Beckman last fall to help create the material for Haas new class called Problem Finding, Problem Solving. In the article she describes some of the framework and challenges.
Download by clicking here.
Our one day workshop "Design Thinking for Better Innovation" will be held on October 1st through UC Extension. Registration information to come
Conferences to Check this Quarter
The largest conference in creativity in the US, CPSI will be held in Atlanta the week of June 20th. If you are
interested in learning how to better create, innovate and lead change, this highly experiential conference will be an
exciting experience. www.CPSIconference.com
The first design thinking "unconference": born out of passionate discussions in a linked-in group focused on design thinking, participants will for the first time meet and discuss about the future of design thinking, in a somewhat informal format. It will be held in Vancouver on August 19 and 20th http://dtuc.org